MC Tested: Etymotic ER 20XS Earplugs

How do these motorcycle earplugs sound?

Etymotic ER 20XS Earplugs
Etymotic ER 20XS Earplugs Buy It NowPhoto: Julia LaPalme

We all know that wearing earplugs while riding is a must, but not everyone likes the way the ubiquitous foam earplugs make the world sound. Some riders say "foamies" give things a muffled, unnatural tone, especially when it comes to voices.

If true-to-life sound is important to you, check out Etymotic Research's new ER•20XS earplugs. Etymotic specializes in headphones and hearing protection for musicians—where accurate sound is paramount—and it's recently applied its auditory expertise to a set of earplugs designed for riders. The ER•20XS plugs are said to reduce noise evenly across all frequencies and offer high-fidelity sound, just at a lower volume.

After wearing the Etymotics for some time I can report that the sound that reaches your ears is indeed clear and non-muffled. They’re also quite comfortable (they come with three optional ear tips) and easy to remove thanks to a semi-rigid pull tab. Part of the earplugs’ excellent sound clarity surely comes from the ER•20XS’s advanced design, but there’s also the fact that they carry a Noise Reduction Rating of just 13 decibels. (Most foam earplugs carry an NRR of 30 to 32 decibels.) Etymotic says the NRR is a poor indicator of real-world performance and that the ER•20XS’s actual attenuation is closer to 20 decibels, but in any case they don’t quite offer enough sound suppression for my preferences. So while you can certainly hear voices and other sounds better while wearing the ER•20XS plugs, you can also hear a lot more wind noise out on the road.

That being the case, I’d say the Etymotics are best reserved for low-speed jaunts across town or shorter commutes. For $25 they’re certainly worth a try, and even if they don’t suit your needs while riding you’ll likely find them useful for concerts, race events, and other noisy venues where you’d prefer to hear accurately, just not as loud!

Etymotic ER 20XS Earplugs
Price: $25
Verdict: True-to-life sound, but just a little too much of it.